Who’s Still Laughing With the Razzies?

Photo: Jessica Forde/20th Century Studios

The Razzies are at it again. This month, the organization dedicated to “celebrating” the worst that cinema annually has to offer debuted its nominations for its 41st awards ceremony, to be held (per tradition) a day before the Academy Awards, on Saturday, March 26. Leading this year’s crop was Diana: The Musical, a filmed version of the short-lived Broadway production, which earned nine nominations, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, and nods in every acting category. Jared Leto (House of Gucci), Ben Affleck (The Last Duel), Amy Adams (The Woman in the Window), Mark Wahlberg (Infinite), Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) and LeBron James (Space Jam: A New Legacy) will also compete for various prizes, although one person is guaranteed to take home a Golden Raspberry statuette: Bruce Willis, who for his string of underwhelming direct-to-VOD efforts was nominated eight separate times in his own category, Worst Performance by Bruce Willis in a 2021 Movie.

Of all these selections, none hit a chord like Affleck’s — his blond-wigged turn as an intemperate dandy in Ridley Scott’s period piece was lifted up by most professional film critics in 2021. Thumb-on-the-nose choices seem par for the Razzie course, though; to become an awards voter, a person need only pay a $40 membership fee, meaning cinematic expertise plays little to no factor in the Razzie process. In years past, the institution has gone after A-listers including Sylvester Stallone and Madonna (the all-time leaders in male and female acting nods, respectively) as well as auteurs such as Brian De Palma (for Scarface) and Stanley Kubrick (for The Shining). Its history of dubious picks combined with the organization’s laughably low barrier to entry have earned the group a waggish reputation. Today, the Razzies (founded in 1981) boast 1,128 members from 49 states and more than two dozen foreign countries.

Four decades into the joke, it’s fair to ask, What do the Razzies want? To poke fun at Hollywood’s prestige productions on the eve of the industry’s most self-congratulatory night? To needle indie and genre efforts that enraptured reviewers? To genuinely point at the baddest of bad cinema and say, “Not this time, Affleck!” In a conversation with Razzie founders John J.B. Wilson and Maureen Murphy, we chatted about the past, present, and future of their long-running cine-skewering venture.

This year’s nominee pool runs the gamut from big-budget studio films to low-profile VOD releases. Given that eclecticism, is the Razzies’ purpose to take the air out of the Hollywood star system or to truly find the worst of the worst?
John J.B. Wilson: I don’t see why there couldn’t be a duality. We do in general try to stick to the big-budget, big-name people. The whole Bruce Willis thing came about because at the end of the year, we do look at worst-of-the-year lists, and his name kept coming up on list after list after list — but with different titles every time. His pictures were pretty low-profile; I think they all went directly to streaming. But when we checked his IMDb filmography and saw, Wow, he was actually in eight movies that came out in a single year, that is a Razzie record. I think the old record was six by Gilbert Gottfried a long time ago. But to be that prolific in exhibiting how little you care is rather impressive.

Other winners have in the past embraced their Razzie wins. Do you expect to hear from Willis?
J.W.: I will be curious to see. Somewhat in his defense, it is entirely possible, given what’s been going on with release patterns during COVID, that these were not all literally made within one 12-month period. It’s like when somebody’s body is thrown in the river and it comes to the surface later. But we were very, very careful to ensure, from multiple sources, that they all debuted in 2021. And if he has a reaction, I’d be curious what it is. His name is on the poster of every single one of these, and he’s in them to varying degrees from one movie to another, but his screen time in these movies is never enough to justify the fact that he’s on the poster trying to get you to rent it.

Maureen Murphy: The other part of it is we’re not here to beat anybody up. It’s basically just calling them out. I like to say we all make mistakes — look at the Razzies. And the other way we like to look at it is we bring humanity to celebrity. The audience truly embraces it when somebody steps up and says, “Yeah, I did a dog.” They get that — they love it. That’s our tone.

J.W.: We have to have a sense of humor about ourselves to justify doing what we do. The phrase that I like to use is we don’t consider ourselves a slap in the face; we look at ourselves as a banana peel on the floor. The overarching intent is humorous because all of these people got paid $1 million or more, we assume. And in my mind, if you got $1 million and then you got nominated for a Razzie, excuse me, you still have $1 million — can’t you afford a sense of humor at that price?

Still, do you worry about commingling big- and low-budget titles? Because if you’re just going after the absolute worst, you’d think the latter would dominate the nominations.
M.M.: You mean like Taryn Manning in Karen?

Yes. I think it can be confusing to lump a Karen in with The House of Gucci given that they’re operating on somewhat different playing fields. Do you deliberately want to straddle that line?
J.W.: To be honest, what the movie cost — unless it cost a fortune and lost a fortune — really shouldn’t be factored into it. It’s whether or not it was competent. Karen was brought to our attention by those worst-of lists — it was on list after list after list. When we finally saw it, the script was not very good, the direction was not very good, the lead actress was ridiculous. I have to say most of the other people in the movie around her were believably human, but Karen herself was a not-too-distant cousin to Cruella. The way it was written and performed, she stands out in that ensemble.

It means well; the message of the picture is a positive message. But it’s so clumsily handled that no matter how little you had to spend, it wasn’t good.

M.M.: It wasn’t a Zeitgeist movie as far as audiences are concerned, but it was on lists. A lot of lists. And that’s where we find a lot of stuff.

Razzies co-founder John J.B. Wilson. Photo: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

Is that how you narrow down your candidates — via worst-of lists?
M.M.: Not necessarily. We have a forum with a lot of members who weigh in. And we see movies, but it’s not like we can see everything.

J.W.: Also, IMDb users rate movies; I’m assuming they are not critics, although who knows? Some of them might be. But that was another thing we were looking at this year: Because so many things did go VOD, a lot of stuff got past the critics. Take Bruce Willis’s eight movies — one or two of them don’t actually have a Rotten Tomatoes rating. I think the highest rating any of the eight got was 20 percent, and two of them actually got zero percent, and when you look at the user ratings on IMDb, none of them even got five out of ten.

M.M.: The landscape has changed so much in the last couple of years because of COVID and streaming and how things are released, and the glut of stuff means that we can’t look at every released movie. We have to do a little bit of research and then check it out, just for guidance as to what we can select for a huge group that gets pared down with the members weighing in. So there is that process, and that process has changed, obviously, in the last couple of years.

J.W.: In any given year, throughout our 42-year history, there are arguably 65 to 165 films that on some level, or in some way, you can argue should be Razzie contenders. As Maureen was saying, you can’t hand somebody a ballot with 165 names on it and say “Pick five” or “Pick one.” So there are going to be things that escape our notice. Somebody sent us an email just last week about a foreign film, asking why it wasn’t nominated. Well, people might have seen it in France, but I don’t think it was ever released in the United States. [Laughs.] It is impossible to catch them all. We do our best.

Of all the 2021 Razzie nominations, none seemed to shock people as much as Ben Affleck’s nod for The Last Duel. Were you surprised by that reaction?
J.W.: Our take on it was that it was almost like he was doing Beavis and Butt-head in the Dark Ages. He was a completely contemporary character and performance in a movie set in the 14th century. It’s an interesting concept, and something of a risk, but we apparently are not alone in thinking that it wasn’t very good, at least not among our members, because I think he came in right behind Jared Leto in the nominating ballots. I will admit he’s a perennial, and kind of a lightning rod, but I would defend the nomination.

M.M.: We don’t like to do that. We don’t like to pick on somebody. But we felt that his performance just really stood out. Even a little bit of Matt Damon’s did as well, but not as much as Ben Affleck in that era. In my mind, it just completely stood out. It was very Americana.

J.W.: Also, the movie got mostly favorable reviews, but at the box office, it bombed. It didn’t make nearly what they spent on it. So, again, the public seems to agree with us.

Also, a whole bunch of the coverage is saying he’s in Worst Actor. Excuse me — read the press release. We’re calling him a supporting actor. He has high billing, but he isn’t in the movie for even 20 minutes, I think. So he’s clearly a supporting performance.

To some, the fact that particular actors — like Affleck — repeatedly receive nominations feels like you’re taking potshots at favorite targets. Is that fair, or is that just the way it works out?
M.M.: It’s kind of the way it works out if they become, like, a Nicolas Cage or a Bruce Willis. But Nicolas Cage, I just saw a film called Pig, and I liked his performance in that. We have a Razzie Redeemer Award; we don’t like to pick on people. We like to call them out and say, “Hey, think about what you’re doing. Think about your choices.” That’s the point. Sometimes actors will just fall into a routine; maybe they have a money machine that they need to fill. That’s what happens, and it’s just about calling it out.

J.W.: Part of what the award is about is not “You suck, and you’ve never done anything good.” A lot of these people, it’s about, “Wow, look at all the good stuff that you’ve done — please explain this one.” [Laughs.] That would apply to Amy Adams this year. I have never before been disappointed by a performance that she gave; I think she’s a very impressive actress. But she was in two of the nominated films, and she herself is nominated for each of them in the two different categories.

M.M.: It’s like the Oscars: Boy, did they have some picks and misses that really boggled my mind. I was such a fan of Belfast, and Caitríona Balfe was fantastic — a way better performance in my mind than Kristen Stewart in Spencer. And this is what happens. We try our best.

How does membership work, and why did you choose to make it accessible to anyone who wants to join (for a $40 fee)?
J.W.: The bulk of our dues-paying members are regular moviegoers. I don’t think there is another awards organization as well known as ours that represents the general public. We also have film journalists who over the years have requested to be put on the voter list. And we have professional screenwriters, directors, actors — that kind of thing. I think we’re the only one where all three of those groups’ input factors into our results. We think we’re a rather democratic organization. We don’t forbid anybody.

There was one year where somebody joined at the lifetime level, and we used to do the process by mail, and he sent us a whole bunch of ballots that were quite obviously from the same person, and we sent him his money back and said we can’t allow that. This has to have some legitimacy to it. The other thing about taking memberships over the internet is we have members all over the world. I think the only continent we’re not represented on is Africa. But we have members in England, France, Italy, Greece, Brazil, Australia, Mexico, Canada. Without putting it out there on the internet to let people participate, I don’t think you would have as global a representation of what moviegoers think.

Is there a point during the selection or voting process when members are required to see the movies that are up for consideration?
M.M.: You can’t enforce that with any organization, including the Academy Awards. You can’t say, “Okay, I see that you’ve seen it — here’s your IP address, and here’s the link.” You can’t do that with any awards unless you’re sitting in a room forcing them to watch something. There really is no assumption as far as that’s concerned.

J.W.: There has to be a certain amount of good faith here.

The Razzies began in a pre-internet age when there wasn’t an endless amount of readily available film criticism, opinion, and commentary. How do you stay relevant in that sort of environment?
M.M.: It’s a brand name at this point, and it’s synonymous with the word bad. People get that. It’s a berry 42 years in the making. So it’s there — it’s in the pop culture. If somebody comes along with a golden pear or something, it gets lost. Plus it’s worldwide. We’ve been approached by people in other countries saying, “Can we expand this into our region?,” and that sort of thing. It’s there, naturally. That’s the cool thing about it.

J.W.: Our longevity, in my mind, is a double-edged sword. I think it attests to we are still relevant if we still get this amount of attention. But yes, to certain people looking at it, you’re ancient — you’ve been around forever. [Laughs.]

M.M.: You can say that about the Oscars, too.

J.W.: The Oscars are even more decrepit than we are. [Laughs.] But based on how many of our members have emails that say they’re college students, we think that our voting membership has skewed younger and stayed younger over the years.

M.M.: Yeah, the demographics are between 18 to 25.

J.W.: We look at analytics on our Razzie channels, and the media seems to concur that it tends to be younger people voting and participating and keeping the thing going. So I don’t think it’s aged, but, yes, the very fact that we’ve been around longer than many of these people voting have been alive — I think that’s actually kind of a positive.

Historically, the Razzies have made a number of controversial picks, whether it’s nominating Ennio Morricone for his The Thing score or Stanley Kubrick for directing The Shining. Is there one that you hear about most frequently?
M.M.: For me, it’s Shelley Duvall in The Shining. Knowing the backstory and the way that Stanley Kubrick kind of pulverized her, I would take that back.

J.W.: About the same film, the voting membership the very first year were largely people that Maureen and I worked with at a trailer company. A group of us who had read Stephen King’s novel went to see The Shining the night it opened at the Chinese, and we didn’t care for what Kubrick had done with the novel. The novel was far more visually astounding, far more terrifying, far more compelling, and we couldn’t understand why you would buy a novel that had all of that visual opportunity in it and then not do the topiary thing, not do the snakes in the carpet, not do the kids’ visions. If you’re going to say it’s The Shining, you have to have certain key things in there that were not. And as I understand it, Kubrick was the one who decided what they cut out from the novel. So I don’t feel that badly about Stanley Kubrick.

M.M.: Exactly. I think that guy’s overrated. He did one good movie, and that was about it. And we’re willing to say, “Yeah, maybe that shouldn’t have been nominated.” Everybody makes mistakes. That’s being human.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The list of actors and filmmakers who have personally accepted their Razzie Awards at the ceremony includes Paul Verhoeven (for Showgirls), Tom Green (for Freddy Got Fingered), Halle Berry (for Catwoman), and Sandra Bullock (for All About Steve — the night before she won the Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side). Apart from Sylvester Stallone and Madonna, some of the most-nominated actors in Razzies history include Adam Sandler, Nicolas Cage, and Jennifer Lopez.
Who’s Still Laughing With the Razzies?